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A returning alum joins the computer science faculty.

New Prof Uses Tech to Facilitate Preschoolers’ Learning

For Kyle Diederich ’09, returning to his alma mater as a professor “feels like coming home.” The assistant professor of computer science is one of 14 new faculty members who joined St. Norbert College for the 2020-21 academic year. The Kaukauna, Wis., native graduated from SNC with a goal of becoming a high-school math teacher. He continued his education, earning a master’s in mathematics education from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Iowa.

Diederich’s research interests have focused on creating technology that integrates with human interaction – and he has used that combination for a system that helps preschool-aged children learn and develop. He spoke with Trisha (Whitkanack) Lawless ’96 about his path back to SNC and the special relevance his work has in today’s increasingly technology-driven culture.

Q: What first drew you to SNC as a student, and what does it mean to be back at your alma mater teaching?
A: I remember when I first started trying to decide what I wanted to do in high school. I made a list of everything I didn’t want to do, and teaching didn’t end up on that list. I decided to look for teacher-education colleges and started visiting. It felt like home that first moment I stepped on campus at SNC. My mom dragged me to 17 other campuses, but this one has always felt like home.

SNC made me feel supported the whole time. I was excited every moment I was here – until the job market crashed in 2008. It made it very difficult for me to find a position when I graduated. I went on 23 interviews. The position I finally got was teaching middle school at St. Matthew in Green Bay. Being that close made me wish I could be back in the college atmosphere. I always felt like I was home when I was here at St. Norbert. I missed that [residential] community feel. You keep hearing the word communio, and there’s a reason that’s a buzzword here. You are part of a community, part of a family. It’s hard to give that up.

Coming back to SNC, it is kind of like I’m back home now. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Maybe it was God’s plan for me, maybe it was something else, but that draw was always there to come back.

Q: What courses are you teaching this year? Is there one you enjoy most?
A: I’m teaching Software Engineering & Elementary Data Structures and Database Techniques & Modeling. I like them both for different reasons. In 2013-14, I was here teaching the Software Engineering course at SNC as a visiting instructor. I’m enjoying that one a lot because it gives me a chance to fix my mistakes and do it better than I did last time. I like to take notes about what did work and what didn’t work, and constantly improve.

I’ve also been enjoying the opportunity to teach databases. Most people deal with databases in their employment. It’s the number-one skill computer science students need to prepare for in their careers. I had to teach myself those skills for my research work. It’s nice to be able to show students, “Here are mistakes I made when I was doing it on my own.”

Q: Your research focuses on blending people and technology to enhance learning for young children. How did you become interested in that area?
A: In 2017, I saw a survey that found 95 percent of children had access to a smartphone at home. Children are using these mobile devices, but most apps are not research-based. It’s not smartphones that are the problem, it’s people who create the things we do on smartphones. I wanted to take a more ethical approach. If I was going to design apps for children under 5, I had to make sure I was building to a population where there’s need and where there is a skill gap.

That’s what drove me to executive functions, which include things like knowing when to speak or not speak, how to regulate emotions, how to initiate new tasks, how to create and organize a plan, and how to monitor your own reactions. A crucial time for developing those skills is age 3-4. I realized this was an area I could potentially support. When children have good skills with executive function, they will be more successful later in school. These skills are tough to teach in a traditional setting through lecture. It’s more effective if kids are learning by doing.

Q: So you decided to develop technology to help young kids improve executive function. How does it work?
A: I designed a system called StoryCarnival that takes you through the whole process of a preschool curriculum activity based on role-play. I found a curriculum style called Tools of the Mind, based on Vygotsky as well as Elkonin and Leont’ev [Soviet psychologists who focused on child development]. There’s strong emphasis on children setting common goals, deciding who will play the characters, who will use which prop, etc. We use generic props like blocks in place of realistic toys to help spark imagination. This curriculum is hard for many preschools to adopt because it involves long, extensive training and meetings. I saw technology as a way to make it easier to implement this technique.

With StoryCarnival, we use a cardboard box with a Bluetooth speaker as a “character” that an adult can use to redirect behavior. If the kids get off task, you can say different lines in a character voice to redirect play without interrupting. In our research, we found that using this technology, plus one person leading the activity, had better outcomes than having two people. We started out using stuffed puppets, but we ultimately shifted to using the box with the speaker based on how kids responded best.

StoryCarnival is still being researched and developed at the University of Iowa. They’re looking into applications of this for children with autism, along with moving it into greater distribution for parents and teachers through Amazon Web Services.

Q: I have read that you prefer to focus on research that upholds the “3 Cs of Technology”: Creating, Connecting and Communicating to Learn. Can you explain those ideas?
A: Right now, there are a lot of applications or technology designed to consume. While I don’t necessarily think these are bad activities, I want greater emphasis on technology that has children creating something new, where you’re not a passive consumer, you’re an active maker. You’re able to interact and change your environment. That’s the first C: creating.

The second C, connecting, means connecting together or to your physical environment. If you just consume media at your tablet, you’re only focusing on what’s in front of you. That’s where you see people looking like zombies, with their heads down and earphones in. If we create more technologies where people connect with their physical environment, we’re not so isolated.

Then there’s communication – building tech in a way where it doesn’t dominate a conversation, but it’s in the background and allows people to be center stage. I don’t have to think about my Bluetooth headset, for example, when I have a phone conversation; I’m just talking as I would if we were in the same room. We want tech that doesn’t become the only thing we worry about. Our interpersonal interactions are more important.

Q: How are things different for today’s SNC students compared with your own experience as a student on campus 2005-09?
A: When I started college, there were still landline phones in every dorm room. There certainly wasn’t as much connectivity with wireless and internet, which is one big difference.

I also see lots of students today who are very resilient. I don’t know how my class would have dealt with the pandemic – I’d like to think we could do as well as the students today, but I don’t know. They’re still attending classes, they’re extremely positive and the majority are doing what they can to make sure they can stay in physical classes. I have also noticed that students today really want to know their professors. I was always afraid to talk to mine. They are genuinely interested in who their professors are as people. I like students who question and want to know why something is the way it is.

Oct. 29, 2020